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Rosh Hashana 5775 – Hagar and Yishmael: Reflections on the ‘Other’ – Empathy

For a printable PDF version click here:RH Hagar and Yishamel 5775

Note: This essay requires a detailed analysis of the two readings of Rosh Hashana.  It is strongly advised to read them through and I have attached them at the end of the essay for those that would like to do so.

There are constantly questions that arise in our modern State and in our lives as religious Jews living in the modern world, that beg us to reflect and introspect.  When we see the faces of the children in Gaza, when we hear the cries of the Agunot (chained women), when we feel the pain of the Mamzer being cast our from within our nation, our hearts should be aching. And yet in all these instances we work from within constraints, national self defence, Halakha, Divine command. When our moral intuition and ethical compassion becomes threatened by other values or laws, where does the solution lie?

In my mind, this dilemma lies at the heart of our Rosh Hashana readings.  In Shemot 21 and 22 we read of two impossible situations  The first a father is called upon by his wife and God to cast his beloved son into the desert with his mother. The second a father is called upon to sacrifice his one remaining son, from whom he had been promised his seed would be blessed.  A father filled with a deep innate morality, a person who raison d’etre is love and compassion towards other human beings, is being asked in both situations to execute an impossible command.  The command is cold, pragmatic, harsh.  It contrasts dramatically with everything we know of the father until now.  And yet he fulfils what is being asked of him. Was he right to do so? Should he have trusted his own moral compass as opposed to that which the ‘Divine voice’ was telling him?  Avraham in both these narratives is being pulled between the Divine command and his moral intuition.  He is being asked to give one up, to sacrifice not just a son, or two, but his own inner convictions.

The greatness of our forefather is that he refuses to do that.  He manages to live between the tension of that pull, in fulfilling the harshest and seemingly most immoral of Divine commands, he maintains a deep profound sensitivity and compassion.  It is this powerful lesson that we must extract from these readings.

In a fascinating choice[1] of readings for Rosh Hashana Chazal juxtapose Bereshit 21 and 22 – the story of the banishment if Hagar and Yishmael and the sacrifice of Yitzchak. There is a parallel being drawn between the two which we notice immediately when reading them side by side. The thematic resemblance is clear- the sacrificing of two sons at the hand of a beloved father, a near death experience as a result of a Divine command culminating in a miraculous last minute rescue, a desert location and a divine promise of a legacy at the end. Additionally we find textual similarities between the two. The phrase וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר – and Avraham arose early in the morning features in both, the locations of beer sheva is mentioned in both narratives and the term וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ and וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ – and Avraham ‘sent’ is the verb used in both narratives to describe the execution by Avraham of the divine command (note that this is significant especially because when Sara addresses the issue she calls upon Avraham to , גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת – exile/banish them.  Avraham executes the command in a much more compassionate and gentle way not by banishing them but sending them away).

So the two narratives share a common theme and some textual parallels. However the lesson of a comparison rests not just in the similarities but more importantly in the differences.

The main glaring difference between the two lies in the way in which Avraham and Hagar behave.

Hagar after being sent away wanders aimlessly and lifelessly through the desert as described through the words וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּתַע, בְּמִדְבַּר. Avraham in both narratives is focused and fixed on the mission he has been given, even if his heart is swaying. I believe this is shown in the text through Hagar’s eyes having to be opened by God (21:19) and Avraham eyes always being open and looking upwards (22:4/13)/.  Even when reality beckons us to despair, to close our eyes and become apathetic we must remain resolute in our commitment and responsibility to the other and their suffering, eyes wide open embracing the other through the face to face encounter.

The second difference, is the stark contrast between the way in which Avraham ad Hagar treat their offspring.

Having wandered in the desert Hagar runs out of water.  The verse describes her actions as follows:

טז וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד, הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת, כִּי אָמְרָה, אַל-אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד; וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד, וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.

And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. (Bereshit 21:16)

There is a word that repeats itself twice here – keneged – against. Hagar could not bear to face her child in his death and hence turns her face away – against – his suffering and cries.  Her actions are on the one hand understandable; who wants to see their child die? Yet on the other hand totally startling; how can a mother possibly abandon her child at his time of need, how can she not hold him and comfort him at the moment he needs it the most? Almost as a reaction to this dilemma the Torah responds to Hagar’s action when an angel calls to her from above saying as follows:

And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her:

‘What is with you, Hagar? fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad because he is there. 18 Arise, lift up the lad, and take his hand; for I will make him a great nation.’ (Bereshit 21:17)

Instead of hearing the cry of Hagar God has heard the cry of Yishmael, the very cry that Hagar herself should have heeded to.  The angel calls upon Hagar to show the basic empathy of a mother, to lift her child, hold him by the hand, embrace him, wipe his tears.  In other words, the angel is attempting to awaken within Hagar the innate moral compassion of a mother to a child, to ensure she turns her face towards his suffering and not against him.  The Divine call is for a face-face encounter that will arouse a moral compassion. As Emmanuel Levinas, the celebrated Jewish French philosopher states:

‘The face in its nakedness as a face presents to me the destitution of the poor one and the stranger….access to the face is straightaway ethical….the first word of the face is ‘you shall not kill’. (Levinas: Ethics and Infinity p85-86).

By closing her eyes and turning her face away from her son, Hagar ensures she is immune to his cries and it takes a heavenly voice to remind her of her moral responsibility towards her child.

This incident stand in deep contrast to the actions of Avraham. [2]  If the Torah has emphasised the abandonment of Yishmael at the hands of his mother, it has shown us the compassion of the father – the sending off with bread and water, the small but significant difference between being cast away – legaresh and being sent away – ve’yishlach, and the promise given to Avraham that he will become a great nation that allows him to fulfil the heavenly command in the knowledge that his son will have a future.

The story of the Akeida provides an even deeper contrast between Hagar and Avraham,.  A natural reaction to being called upon to sacrifice ones son, would be to emotionally detach oneself.  To ensure there is no love or togetherness throughout the event so as to make the final act easier. Here, however, we see the opposite ensues.  Twice we are told ; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו- the two of them went together. When Yitzchak speaks to his father, Avraham answers in a soft and reassuring fashion.  Even at the time of his unbearable pain and deep existential crisis, when cruelty is going to be the reality, Avraham never abandons his son.[3]   What Avraham achieves is what Hagar could not – to look into the eyes and face of the other even at a time of pain and suffering, to know that you cannot save them, but yet you can love them and give them comfort.

Avraham fulfilled in both these events what God had in mind when he chose Avraham to be the father of the nation.  Preceding the famous argument between Avraham and God over the destruction of Sodom, we find a strange verse where God decides to bring the news to Avraham because:

לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

. In order so that Avraham can command his sons and his household after him to ‘guard the path of Lord to do Righteousness and Justice’. (Bereshit 18:19)

What does this phrase mean? How does it find expression in Avraham’s argument with God that follows? What I want to suggest is that there can often exist a tension between ‘derech Hashem’ and ‘tzedakah and mishpat’. We address the reality of our existence through the categories we understand – righteousness, justice, compassion, mercy.  Sometimes these values themselves contradict, but often we are able to reconcile them.  However when the derech Hashem – the Divine command, the way of God, contradicts with our human understanding of reality, our ethical intuition and our definitions of justice, it may be impossible to reconcile them.  How can we ever reconcile a loving, compassionate God with the horrors of the Holocaust for example? When Avraham, argues with God he is arguing from the perspective of a human being steeped in inherent ethical and moral compassion.  He cannot and will not be able to understand the ‘Derech Hashem’, but what he does learn at the end of the dialogue, is that there exists a realm in which his human intuition is limited. There is a category of things that are ‘Derech Hashem’ and that in our eyes cannot be reconciled with any of our human values.  Our role is to work within the constraints of both these principles. We must strive continuously to maintain to the best of our abilities both the way of the Lord, often beyond our comprehension, and our own human moral understanding of reality.

When Avraham is called upon to sacrifice both his sons, he is reluctant (in one explicitly the other implicitly), yet he does so because he understands that this falls in the category of ‘Derech Hashem’.  His greatness is that even in the moment of fulfilling the incomprehensible Divine command, he has not forgotten the absolute values of compassion, mercy and empathy. His greatness is his ability to live and act between the two.

In my mind the Torah too goes to lengths to ensure the reader understands this idea. It is clear in the first incident that the survival of Yitzchak is dependent on the sending away of Yishmael, there is a pragmatic reason for this seeming cruelty and yet the reader must still endure the cries of Hagar Yishmael:

וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ..  Even though the action must be done, we must not become immune to the pain of the other. In another fascinating textual parallel we find the exact same expression used when it comes to Eisav.  After having been robbed of the birthright by his brother Yaakov, an act that again, was necessary for the survival of the Israelite nation, we are describes in exquisite and painful detail Eisav’s reaction:

כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר לְאָבִיו בָּרְכֵנִי גַם-אָנִי אָבִי. 

When Eisav heard the words of his father he cried a great and bitter cry that endured, and he said to his father, please bless me too my father.

וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אֶל-אָבִיו, הַבְרָכָה אַחַת הִוא-לְךָ אָבִי–בָּרְכֵנִי גַם-אָנִי, אָבִי; וַיִּשָּׂא עֵשָׂו קֹלוֹ, וַיֵּבְךְּ

And Eisav said to his father: ‘Have you but one blessing, my father? bless me too, my father.’ And Eisav lifted up his voice, and wept. (Bereshit 27)

Any reader with an ounce of compassion cannot help but be moved by Eisav’s cry here. The Torah wants us to feel his pain, it wants us to live the consequence of our father Yaakov’s actions, as it forces us quite emphatically into a face to face encounter with Eisav – with the ‘other’ and his pain.

Once Yaakov dons the clothes of Eisav he moves from an ‘Ish Chalak’ – a simple, harmonious straightforward person to an ‘Ish sear’ (see bereshit 27:10) a hairy man – an entangled and complex existence.   An existance that requires action that must be done for the sake of derech hashem creating a conflict with our deep ethical convictions and creating complex consequences.  Yaakov’s actions were done at a great moral cost, they leave a scar that haunts him for the rest of his life.  Nothing is clear cut- chalak– it is entangled, waiting to be made sense of, like the solution to the akeida – the ram – it is entangled in the thicket. To release it is painful and comes at a cost

By reading these two narratives on Rosh Hashana we are reminded that unlike the childhood understanding of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actions, the living reality is not so simple.  As human beings who have strong inherent moral values Levinas’s ethical imperative, through the face to face encounter, is something we can identify with. If we could judge all action based simply on our compassion and responsibility to the other, things would be simple.  If on the other hand, we could judge our actions simply through the צו ה” – Divine command, ignoring the plight of the agunah, the mamzer, the potential convert, again life would be relatively simple.  But God in the Tanach requires something far greater from us.  He demands of us a task that is probably almost impossible – to fulfil to the best of our ability His commands, but to simultaneously be compassionate, merciful, empathetic and listen to our moral intuition.  He demands of us to stand wrenched between the irreconcilable positions and to maintain them both.  He wants us to ‘send the son away’ and still feel his pain and his cry through the face to face encounter. To maintain our survival by building a wall between us and the ‘other’ and yet not become blinded or immune to their suffering.  To exclude the mamzer from our community but to comfort him in his sorrow.[4]  This tension is expressed in the bracha we make on the Torah:

“בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ תּורַת אֱמֶת וְחַיֵּי עולָם נָטַע בְּתוכֵנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ נותֵן הַתּורָה”

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us the Torah of truth, and planted within us the way of the world (own translation). Blessed are you oh Lord who gives us the Torah

The torah is emet – derech hashem, but also implanted within us by God is the way of the world – an inner ethical conviction- tzedakah and mishpat. We have to maintain and nurture them both.

On Rosh Hashana we undergo a difficult journey of self introspection both as individuals and a nation as to whether or not we continue to strive in reconciling both these often opposing vales.  Whether we have managed to maintain our commitment to both of them and whether we even recognise the magnitude of what is being asked of us.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

The two Readings:

  1. Bereshit 21

ח וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד, וַיִּגָּמַל; וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל, בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת-יִצְחָק.  ט וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת-בֶּן-הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם–מְצַחֵק.  י וַתֹּאמֶר, לְאַבְרָהָם, גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת, וְאֶת-בְּנָהּ:  כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן-הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת, עִם-בְּנִי עִם-יִצְחָק.  יא וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם, עַל, אוֹדֹת בְּנוֹ.  יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, אַל-יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל-הַנַּעַר וְעַל-אֲמָתֶךָ–כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ:  כִּי בְיִצְחָק, יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע.  יג וְגַם אֶת-בֶּן-הָאָמָה, לְגוֹי אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ:  כִּי זַרְעֲךָ, הוּא.  יד וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח-לֶחֶם וְחֵמַת מַיִם וַיִּתֵּן אֶל-הָגָר שָׂם עַל-שִׁכְמָהּ, וְאֶת-הַיֶּלֶד–וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ; וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּתַע, בְּמִדְבַּר בְּאֵר שָׁבַע.  טו וַיִּכְלוּ הַמַּיִם, מִן-הַחֵמֶת; וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד, תַּחַת אַחַד הַשִּׂיחִם.  טז וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּשֶׁב לָהּ מִנֶּגֶד, הַרְחֵק כִּמְטַחֲוֵי קֶשֶׁת, כִּי אָמְרָה, אַל-אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד; וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד, וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּיז וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹקים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר, וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל-הָגָר מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה-לָּךְ הָגָר; אַל-תִּירְאִי, כִּי-שָׁמַע אֱלֹקים אֶל-קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא-שָׁם.  יח קוּמִי שְׂאִי אֶת-הַנַּעַר, וְהַחֲזִיקִי אֶת-יָדֵךְ בּוֹ:  כִּי-לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ.  יט וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹקים אֶת-עֵינֶיהָ, וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם; וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּא אֶת-הַחֵמֶת, מַיִם, וַתַּשְׁקְ, אֶת-הַנָּעַר.  כ וַיְהִי אֱלֹקים אֶת-הַנַּעַר, וַיִּגְדָּל; וַיֵּשֶׁב, בַּמִּדְבָּר, וַיְהִי, רֹבֶה קַשָּׁת.  כא וַיֵּשֶׁב, בְּמִדְבַּר פָּארָן; וַתִּקַּח-לוֹ אִמּוֹ אִשָּׁה, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

8 And the child grew, and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport. 10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham: ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.’ 11 And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son. 12 And God said unto Abraham: ‘Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee. 13 And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.’ 14 And Abraham arose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. 16 And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. 17  19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. 20 And God was with the lad, and he grew; and he dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. 21 And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.

  1. Bereshit 22

וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹקים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.  ב וַיֹּאמֶר קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה, עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.  ג וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-חֲמֹרוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו אִתּוֹ, וְאֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ; וַיְבַקַּע, עֲצֵי עֹלָה, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלקים.  ד בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק.  ה וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, שְׁבוּ-לָכֶם פֹּה עִם-הַחֲמוֹר, וַאֲנִי וְהַנַּעַר, נֵלְכָה עַד-כֹּה; וְנִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, וְנָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם.  ו וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה, וַיָּשֶׂם עַל-יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיִּקַּח בְּיָדוֹ, אֶת-הָאֵשׁ וְאֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּוז וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי, וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים, וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה, לְעֹלָה.  ח וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹקים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה, בְּנִי; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו. ט וַיָּבֹאוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וַיַּעֲרֹךְ אֶת-הָעֵצִים; וַיַּעֲקֹד, אֶת-יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתוֹ עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, מִמַּעַל לָעֵצִים.  י וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת, לִשְׁחֹט, אֶת-בְּנוֹ.  יא וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה, מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי.  יב וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וְאַל-תַּעַשׂ לוֹ, מְאוּמָה:  כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹקים אַתָּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ, מִמֶּנִּי.  יג וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה-אַיִל, אַחַר, נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאַיִל, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ.  יד וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, יְהוָה יִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם, בְּהַר ה יֵרָאֶה.  טו וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ ָה, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, שֵׁנִית, מִן-הַשָּׁמָיִם.  טז וַיֹּאמֶר, בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם-ה:  כִּי, יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ, אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידֶךָ.  יז כִּי-בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ, וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְכַחוֹל, אֲשֶׁר עַל-שְׂפַת הַיָּם; וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ, אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו.  יח וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ, כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ, עֵקֶב, אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלִי.  יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל-בְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע.

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’ 2 And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’ 3 And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said unto his young men: ‘Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.’ 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: ‘My father.’ And he said: ‘Here am I, my son.’ And he said: ‘Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8 And Abraham said: ‘God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together. 9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 11 And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’ 12 And he said: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.’ 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son. 14 And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where the LORD is seen.’ 15 And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, 16 and said: ‘By Myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, 17 that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.’ 19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba

[1] Mishna megillah 3:30-31

[2] For a more detailed and nuanced discussion on the questions and dilemmas of the Akeida narrative please see:

The purpose of this essay is to analyse is solely in relation to bereshit 21 and to understand the tension between a divine command and ethical intuition.

[3] Chassidic commentaries (sefat emet, imrei emet) offer some beautiful insights that understand the test of the Akeida to be the ability to combine what was natural to Avraham – compassion mercy, love with what was not – truth, justice. Pragmatism.  Avraham had to love Yitzchak with his entire being  and with that overwhelming love go to sacrifice him.

[4] There is an amazing midrash that addresses this exact dichotomy: Vayikra Rabba 32:8 “I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them” (Ecclesiastes 4:1). Daniel, the tailor, interpreted this verse as pertaining to mamzerim. “The tears of the oppressed”: their mothers transgressed, and these poor ones are excluded; this one’s father committed incest, but what has he done and why should he be affected. (There is) “none to comfort him,” (but rather they are subjected to) “the power of their oppressors”: this refers to Israel’s Great Sanhedrin, who come at them with Torah’s power and exclude them, applying (the verse,) “no mamzer shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord’” (Devarim 23:3). “None to comfort them”—the HolyOne says “It is for me to comfort them.” God has to comfort the mamzerim because the sanhedrin whilst fulfilling their ‘divine role’ have forgotten to comfort them themselves. This is reminiscent of God having to come and comfort Yishmael.

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